Province column: Vancouver mayoral candidate must rethink his housing tax plan

The Lower Mainland housing market might be cooling off these days. But glittering highrise condos continue to sprout up across downtown Vancouver.

Given the region’s housing crunch, one would assume that locals would be quickly snapping up the units to live.

But that’s not always the case. A quick scan of some residential highrises after dark reveals that, in many downtown condos, the lights are always off.

Why? Because investors from as close as Seattle and as far as Singapore have snapped them up, with the intention of flipping them for a profit to the next buyer.

Not surprisingly, the suites are often left empty in the process.

It’s a trend that doesn’t sit well with Gregor Robertson, the newly-minted Vision Vancouver nominee who will run for mayor in November’s civic elections.

According to Robertson, empty homes held by speculators should be subject to an extra tax — one that would treat these real-estate investments more like a business than a get-rich-quick scheme.

Ultimately, his plan would be to force these speculators to rent out their places and help ease the local housing squeeze.

Robertson is touching a nerve with folks who are fed up with sky-high housing costs. And he’s making the issue central to his campaign.

According to Robertson, there are a whopping 18,000 homes that are currently vacant.

What a waste — especially when renters are clamouring to find any kind of accommodation in the city core.

But not everyone agrees with Robertson’s tough proposal.

On some real-estate blogs and Internet forums, his plan has been panned by investors as everything from a “desperate populist campaign promise” to “one of the dumbest ideas ever.”

While their tone might be unfairly harsh, they are right about one thing: This penalty against speculators represents another blatant tax grab — one that could sully the city’s reputation.

Penalizing real-estate buyers, local or not, would tell the world that Metro Vancouver is hostile to outside investment.

And, given the role that construction and housing play in the regional economy, this is something that British Columbia can ill afford.

Besides, history shows that the current run-up in real-estate prices won’t go on forever.

Prices do flatten, and even go down. And when they do, you can bet that locals will get first dibs, if and when offshore buyers decide to bail out of Coal Harbour.

But in the meantime, it would be wrong to make outsiders the scapegoat for Vancouver’s housing woes.

So instead of scaring folks away with another punitive tax, let’s allow the market to shake out the gamblers instead.

Robertson, a successful businessman in his own right, surely knows this better than most.

It’s time for him to ditch this campaign promise.


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Filed under Industry, Media, Neighbourhoods, Politics, Real Estate, Urban Planning, Vancouver, Vancouver Province Columns

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